Wrecker icemen lose to Darien in overtime
Underdogs, the Staples-Weston-Shelton boys co-op hockey team nearly pulled off an upset over longtime thorn-in-the-side Darien in the FCIAC Tournament quarterfinals Saturday. The Blue Wave, aided by some water left behind by the Zamboni, skated away with a 3-2 overtime win at Darien Ice Rink.
The warmer weather resulted in some water left by the ice re-surfacing machine not freezing in the Staples zone. As a result, a clearing attempt got slowed down by a puddle and was intercepted by Darien's Rich Gregory, who scored the decisive goal.
"My guys played so good. We didn't deserve to lose like that," Wreckers Coach Ralph Unker said.
Sure, the Blue Wave was a fourth seed and Staples was seeded fifth, and was without some key players in a 7-3 regular-season meeting, but Darien is a Division I team and Staples is a Division III program and hadn't beaten Darien in more than a decade.
"The bottom line is a Division III team is not supposed to beat a Division I team, but we were stride for stride with them," Unker said. "I can't ask for any more from our guys."
Darien built a 2-0 lead on a pair of Nick Bruno goals. The Wreckers kept coming hard and evened the game by the end of the second period.
"After the second goal we just turned it on," said Staples senior captain Tali Laifer, who played a key role in the game being such a nail-biter. Kyle Wehmhoff and Dan Guererra scored to even the game and the Wreckers kept coming strong and held a shots on goal advantage over Darien after regulation.
"It's definitely frustrating for most of the seniors, for everyone. I don't believe we haven't beaten Darien for like [at least] 10, 12 years," Staples junior captain Aaron Liu said.
The regular-season outcome was deceptive in that Staples starting goaltender Luke Andriuk didn't play, and some key forwards and defensemen were out of the lineup.
"The first time, we weren't at full strength," Unker said.
"We were pretty confident because they beat us 7-3 the first time and we knew that we weren't going to let it happen again," Wehmhoff said.
"We knew we could be competitive with them," Liu added.
Unker made some adjustments to his lineup for this game, moving one of his top forward line players, Laifer, back to defense for about 75 percent of the game, and shifting defensemen Derek Debenedetto and Steven Shulman up to offense.
"It proved to be a big difference. That was probably the best game we played all year," Unker said. "My guys left it all on the ice. I couldn't be any prouder of my guys."
"I do like to play with Aaron and Kyle but the change helped," said Laifer, who has played on the top line with Liu and Wehmhoff for most of the year. "Our defense was strong."
The bad-break loss was a tough one to swallow, but nothing new for Unker. In his 11 seasons of coaching the team, Unker has never beaten Darien despite three overtime defeats and five one-goal games.
"It kind of reminded me of a game we played against them two years ago," Laifer said. That game also went to overtime tied at 2-2, before Darien pulled off the win, he recalls.
In the Division III state tournament, the coach will look for his team to put forth its best possible defensive effort and that likely will mean keeping Laifer on the blue line for much of the tournament. He added that Shulman is a threat on offense and believes that a week of practice up front, in his new role, before the start of states should pay dividends.
Shelton joined the Staples and Weston skaters this year, one season after both the Staples-Weston and Shelton teams failed to qualify for the postseason. In 2008-09, Staples made it to the Division III finals before suffering a tough 3-2 double-overtime defeat to St. Joseph. That was one of many gut-wrenching defeats Unker has endured in his coaching days.
"I don't want to see the monster repeat itself. I want to come away with the prize," Unker said.
Currently, the Wreckers are ranked second in Division II behind the Brookfield-Bethel-Danbury co-op team.
Unker makes no predictions about how far his team will go in states. "That's why you play the games -- because anything can happen," Unker said. "I think we have as good a chance as anybody."